25 October 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 15 comments

This guy walks into a bar.

Something happens, and then he walks out.

If there’s a character arc, he walks out different than when he walked in. The difference could be substantial, or subtle, but at the end of the vignette, he’s change in some way.

That’s the essence of all stories. The character’s transformation. The arc.

When you ask yourself, “What’s the point?” to your entire book, the answer should be the character arc. I’ll give you some examples from films that are easily recognizable. In The Matrix, Neo reluctantly discovers he is “the one,” and with that discovery, evolves into something different. That transformation into a new state of awareness is his arc. It’s the classic hero’s journey. It’s a story about a whole bunch of shit, but at its core, it’s that the world’s an illusion, and as the hero discovers that, the discovery changes him forever, and us with him. In the Karate Kid, it’s more obvious. The MC transforms into his altered, transformed self to win the bout. Same thing in Rocky. Same thing in every major film of the last twenty years. Slumdog Millionaire? MC evolves over the course of the contest to learn what’s really important in his life, and his awareness is forever changed because of it. Pick a movie or a book, that’s the underlying arc. An MC who changes over the course of the story.

This is the same character arc as in most classic fiction. The hero must endure adversity and emerges transformed, enlightened, changed. It’s a metaphor for life. We’re constantly evolving in the face of new information and uncertainty. What makes a character’s arc interesting is the way it mirrors our own experience – how it resonates with us as real when we see it. Not real as plausible, but real as in how we recognize the journey as similar to our own.

It’s the same story, regardless of genre, over and over. In a romance, the main character meets the love interest, and by the time it’s over he or she is changed, and his/her awareness is forever different than when he started. In a thriller, the MC is altered by the experience, the adventure/challenge. In a dramatic work, ditto. Books can be about a lot of things, but at their essence they’re about the change in awareness of the characters that takes place as a result of their having traveled through the story. I maintain that when they work, they work because we as readers are along for the ride, and we feel that afterglow, that satisfaction, of having had our awareness changed as well for having read the stories.

If you know your character arc, that is to say, the point of your story, you can summarize your story in one sentence. Sometimes in a few words. Invariably, the summary that works best is a summary of the character arc. I can do it with mine. It’s essential to writing a compelling blurb. If you can’t do it with your book, you don’t have a clear picture of the arc, and if you don’t, how the hell are you going to write it? You can hope the point comes to you as you go along, but that’s like setting off for New York from Los Angeles and hoping you find your way there, rather than knowing where it is and having a map.

Get the map. It’s way easier.

That’s all I have for you on character arc. Books have been written on how to create one. But I just told you the basics. The character should emerge from the experience that is the basis of the book changed in some fundamental way, and that change forever alters the way they understand reality – and ideally, brings that understanding back to ordinary reality with them, to share. The rest is how that happened. There are a million ways to tell it, which is what we all try to do every day.

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Comments

  1. Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Call me Ismael.

    Reply
  2. Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Russell: I know enough has been written on this to fill the Grand Canyon, but sometimes it seems exaggerated. Yes, in films it is almost always true–good films anyway. And in stand-alone books, the same holds true. But I have read many series (especially detective series) where the main character (and many supporting ones) might change in the first book, but then they are basically the same for the rest of the series (with perhaps one or two exceptions).

    I’m sure if the character arc were tracked from book one to book 20? there would be change, but it would be almost unrecognizable when taken a book at a time.

    Reply
    • D. C. Chester  –  Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 4:37 pm

      Where’s James Bonds’ character arc?

      Dan

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 6:46 pm

        There are exceptions to every rule. Perhaps there are a plethora of hit books with no character arc recently. Dunno. I haven’t read them all. But most I have that have gone big follow this model. Not that you have to.

        Good luck getting a movie made, as an example, without this formula. Having said that, often the most fun, if not the most lucrative, is to break the rules.

        Reply
      • Melissa Bitter  –  Mon 27th Oct 2014 at 11:25 am

        That’s what has made the most recent James Bond movies so interesting to me. They start at the beginning, helping us understand why he is the way he is.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Mon 27th Oct 2014 at 12:27 pm

          The reason Hollywood does that is because the catharsis of the character arc resolving over the course of the film is what does best a the box office. It’s a formula, but one that works.

          Reply
        • D. C. Chester  –  Mon 27th Oct 2014 at 8:49 pm

          In my not so humble opinion Daniel Craig has come closer than any other actor to bringing Ian Fleming’s original James Bond to the screen.

          Dan

          Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 6:51 pm

      True. Although most of the episodic stuff there’s a minor character arc, if only demonstrated via the secondary characters or the antagonist. There will always be exceptions. As an example, my best selling series is JET, and while there’s not a ton of change from book to book, what I try to accomplish is a reveal of more of the MC’s complexity over time, which has the same effect as an arc for the reader – they think she’s one way at the start, and by the end of each episode she’s revealed herself to be more than just that.

      As with all things, it takes a deft touch. Not that I’m saying I have one.

      Reply
      • giacomo giammatteo  –  Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 9:16 pm

        Russell, if anyone accuses you of having a deft touch, I’ll defend you.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Sun 26th Oct 2014 at 12:27 pm

          Hamfistedly, I would hope.

          Reply
  3. Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I like these short craft tip posts. I prefer to learn the essence of how it’s done and keep writing than read a long book about one of these topics that says the same thing.

    Reply
  4. Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 5:50 pm

    There is “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, which is the bible for the all things character arc.

    George Lucas read it, worked it into his movies, billions of dollars.

    There were a series of Punisher comics by Ben Edlund that came out a few years back. Edlund had the temerity to realize that the Punisher doesn’t change much as a character, and put the character arcs on the antagonists of the story. The Punisher killed them all by the end of the book, but at least there was an arc.

    Reply
  5. Sat 25th Oct 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Through my first three books I’ve only been a seat of the pantser, unable to outline my story. But I’m going to try outlining it through character arc, as that seems to make sense.
    As a series writer, I’m noticing that my main character is no longer as interesting to me, and that is because there is only so much transformation he can go through. But there are so many other characters in a book that can take that journey, and he will be along to be a part of it. And I’m sure somewhere along the line, he’ll run into some more problems of his own 🙂

    Reply
  6. Fri 14th Nov 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Russell,

    I’d like to suggest that the character arc is only one element writers may elect to add or not add to their story.

    The reason I say this is that there are a large number of wonderful books and stories that feature no character arc. Many of these are thrillers or mysteries.

    Lee Child. Jack Reacher has zero character arc. Reacher comes in. He kicks butt. He leaves. He’s an unchanging character.

    Mentalist. Episode after episode, season after season, Patrick Jane is basically the same guy.

    Burn Notice. Yeah, there’s a little character stuff with Michael and Fiona once in a while. But most of the episodes feature the same Michael, Fiona, and Sam at the beginning and the end.

    Monk. Rockford. Xfiles. Alias. Law & Order. Some of the episodes feature an arc. But most do not.

    I haven’t read much Cussler, but I’m assuming Pitt is usually the same at the end of the tale as he was in the beginning.

    I could go on. The point is that the character change is only important for that type of story, not for the many others that can be told.

    Reply

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